Most love stories we see in the movies begin with a young man, a young woman, a chance encounter, or these days—maybe a swipe right on an online profile. But the greatest love stories are those that go untold. And this love story—this is one of the greatest I have had the honor to witness, if only for a few hours of their story.
She started with her confusion four months ago. Initially, it started as small things that most would not have noticed. A misplaced purse. Forgetting where the car was parked. Forgetting to mix the eggs into the cake she was baking. Nothing any ordinary person hadn’t done. But soon it turned into something more, he explained. Getting lost in their apartment. Realizing she had opened the closet door instead of the bathroom door and the shame that followed that he couldn’t shoulder for her. The full out heaves of tears he couldn’t calm when she couldn’t find the bathroom after all. The heart ache of watching her grab armfuls of clothes from the closet and place them on the floor with such purpose, knowing there was only a mass jumble of thoughts and hysteria behind her frantic actions. It was a test of stamina to care for her, to look after her, to help her find the way in this narrowing, dark tunnel of her mind. It tired her too. And she slept. She slept after breakfast, she slept after lunch, she slept after dinner. Her waking hours became so sparse, but when she was awake, it was so filled with hyperactive conviction and activities that were seemingly purposeless. He would spend her sleeping hours placing all her shirts, pants, and dresses back in the closet. Washing stains off her clothes that she had spilled soup on. Salvaging what he could out of the trash of the oranges he bought yesterday that she had thrown away.
And soon, she lost her ability to dress herself. And it angered her. With such frustration, she would pick a dress, throw it on the floor, not knowing how to put it on. She would pick something else out of the closet, throw it on the floor, acting as if it wasn’t that she didn’t know how to put it on, but that she no longer wanted to wear it. Yesterday, she settled after picking a towel, laying it neatly on the ground, and with a satisfied content look, declared that this towel was in fact the dress she had decided to wear that day. He told me this, then fell into silence; keeping his eyes locked on my reaction, as if he couldn’t believe his own words, as if he wanted me to tell him they were not true.
He shared most of these things with me in rapid succession, with the same low, quiet, monotonous voice. His eyes tired but gentle; he spoke with such tenderness and love for his wife. This was a love that had grown over 51 years of marriage. Four months of hardship was worthwhile so long as he still had her.
She lay in the hospital bed with her eyes closed. I talked to her softly as I examined her. He chuckled at me, “you know she is probably stone cold asleep, don’t you?” She awoke when I sat her up to listen to her lungs. “Marty?” She said, startled by my presence. “Yes, May? It’s okay. It’s just the doctor. She is just taking care of you.” “Hm.” she grunted as her shoulders relaxed.
Last night had frightened him. “It scared me the way she was acting.” For the first time, he had seemed to slip from her mind. It had been different when it was the location of her purse, the location of the bathroom, or even how to put on her pants. Last night, she couldn’t remember him. She had asked for her pain medication, and when he gave her only one tablet as prescribed, she had become upset. Looking straight at him, she had said, “I don’t know why Marty wouldn’t give me the whole bottle so I could take what I want. He would only give me one tablet! ONE tablet! Can you believe him?” she had shouted at Marty. She proceeded to ask him to call the police, as there was a man in their home. She tried to leave the apartment without her shoes on with the car keys in hand. “And she doesn’t drive. She’s never been like this. It scared me.”
They met 60 years ago in fifth grade. They spent much of their adolescent years getting to know one another, and at the age of 20, they married. They spent the next 51 years married, 20 of those years married with multiple sclerosis grabbing a hold of her and settling into their marriage with them—an unwanted, dreaded third wheel. There have been good days and bad days, early on the good days outnumbering the bad days and making them tolerable. These days, the bad days like a storm cloud ravaging all their days. There are days with falls. There are days with anger. There are days with forgetfulness. And every day that slides by, he tenderly holds onto the girl he met all those years ago. His one love.
I walked into room 14 of our emergency department, 4 hours into their visit. I found him sitting still next to her bed holding her hand in silence. The TV off, her eyes closed, the lights dimmed. Her presence—even in these dark days that have consumed them, even when he is losing his ability to care for her in the way he has for 51 years—her presence still his greatest comfort.
Where they go outside of the doors of our emergency department will be a new chapter in their lives. Their story is one of the great love stories that deserves to be told. A love that knows no end.